When the City Council issued a proclamation last month declaring this coming Monday to be “Lou Olom Day” in honor of Falls Church’s iconic civic activist and education advocate’s 100th birthday on July 10, Olom’s many friends applauded the announcement.
“It’s a labor of love. He has done so much and he’s just a nice person” said Barbara Sharpe, one of five longtime residents planning Olom’s birthday party this Saturday. She’s aided by her husband, former F.C. City Councilman and School Board member Kieran Sharpe, Shey Wakeley, Keith Thurston and Sue Thackrey, who added, “He doesn’t get out much so he’s really excited to be in the news again.”
Though he only briefly served in an official capacity in the city with a term on the school board in the 1950s, Olom has been responsible for much of Falls Church’s historic preservation and beautification efforts since moving to here in 1953. These accomplishments include his inaugural chairmanship of Historic Falls Church, Inc. along with his co-organizing of the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society in 1965 and his efforts to create the city’s first arborist position along with the creation of two public gardens.
To many, his most important contribution was convincing the Falls Church City Schools to adopt the International Baccalaureate program at its George Mason High School at a time when it was a truly novel move. Falls Church City Schools just last year celebrated the accomplishment that the entire system, K-through-12, is now built on the uniquely challenging curriculum of the internationally-acclaimed IB program. The initial adoption of the program in 1981 at Olom’s urging made Mason the first public high school in the state and among the first in the nation to join the program, and the national reputation for the excellence of the Falls Church School System was established, being maintained ever since.
“When we talk about a community keeping its character, that was all Lou’s work,” said Thurston. “He was active in the efforts to develop the Broad Street streetscape that gives the city a cohesive quality appearance.”
“He grew up in a city just north of Chicago so for him to come to a suburban environment like Falls Church was a whole new thing and he just threw himself into it with great passion, and everything from the education to the landscaping of the public areas,” explained Olom’s daughter Noralyn Harlow. She will be travelling to her father’s birthday party this weekend with her family from St. Paul, Minnesota. Olom’s son, Jonathan, passed away at 34 from melanoma, though his work as an attorney is commemorated by the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar with the annual Jonathan Olom Award.
On the introduction of the IB program, Olom said, “People were a little quizzical about this but once it got started, things began to happen.Suddenly people from all over the country were ringing on the telephones, and said ‘what’s this we hear about an IB program’ and we hear it’s one of the best that’s come into the country.”
These days as he approaches his 100th birthday, despite bouts of forgetfulness that come with age, Olom remains full of stories. He freely shares his insights on how the IB program changed the city for the better, stories about the professor who drew him to academia and the reason he went into political science (a combination of not passing physics and not wanting to take algebra) over medicine.
Before a 31-year stint in the U.S. Information Agency working under such luminaries as Nelson Rockefeller and Edward R. Murrow, Olom was firmly entrenched in academia, ascending to the department chair of social and political science at what is now the University of Jacksonville.
Olom was born in Chicago in 1917 to two Russian immigrants. After his father died when he was 12, he helped run his father’s fish and poultry store with his mother and sister.
In a story he shared with the News-Press’ publisher Nicholas Benton years ago, Olom described how after his father’s death, there remained a number of regular customers at the fish store who remained loyal to his mother and their struggling family. One day, one such customer showed up to find Olom’s mother in tears. Asking what was wrong, she explained that her son, Lou, had just graduated with honors from high school but she had no money to send him to college.
It turned out the customer was on the board of trustees of the University of Chicago, and he arranged for Olom to be enrolled there. The rest was history.
“For him, academia was all about the fact that he was able to go to University of Chicago and that was his first step in getting out of poverty and on with his life,” Harlow said.
When asked whether he envisioned turning 100 and having friends still around and throwing a party for him, he answered, “Well, whenever someone wants to throw a party for me, I’m happy.”
“I always have a good time wherever I live,” Olom said. “I find out why I’m here and who are the people who have a feeling for what’s happening in the world whether the world is a small town, a city, a state, a country, or many countries around the world.”
“Lou’s really one of the consciences of our community and over the year he has worked tirelessly for good government and I think over the years he has influenced all of us in the community in a very positive way,” said Falls Church City Council member David Snyder. “My family has had some great times with Lou and look forward to some more in the future.”
Olom’s family and friends have invited the community to honor and celebrate his 100th birthday this Saturday, July 8 from 2 to 4 p.m. at George Mason High School.